Northern Ireland’s politics is changing at a rate no-one could have foreseen.
In the last year alone we have seen the rise and fall of the TUV, the election of the first Alliance MP and our own First Minister losing his seat in Parliament.
The Ulster Unionist Party has not been immune to this change. In fact more than any other party the Ulster Unionists have attempted to bend with the wind and re-invent themselves to face new challenges.
However, due to the vagaries of the first past the post system and internal divisions over the Conservative alliance they weren’t rewarded with any Westminster seats.
This leaves the Ulster Unionist Party facing serious choices in the months ahead, none more so than in the choice of who will lead the party into the next election.
It has been clear from the outset that this will be a two horse race with one candidate being drawn from each of the party’s traditional wings.
Representing the progressive wing of the party is Ulster Unionist education spokesman and Policing Board member Basil McCrea. Mr McCrea is a fresh face in the Ulster Unionist camp. An MLA since 2007, he has established a strong media profile. Considered by some to be a maverick, he was critical of the UUP’s involvement in the Hatfield House talks. However Mr McCrea is universally recognised as one of his party’s ablest communicators. This is in contrast to Tom Elliott.
The UUP ‘old guard’ has rallied around Fermanagh, South Tyrone MLA Tom Elliott. Mr Elliott has the support of many traditional figures in the UUP including Lord Maginess, Danny Kennedy and David McNarry. Mr Elliott is also the candidate most associated with calls for ‘unionist unity’ which will undoubtedly be a definitive issue in his campaign.
Danny Kennedy MLA, Mr Elliott’s most senior supporter, recently shared a platform with DUP Deputy Nigel Dodds. Mr Kennedy used the opportunity to call for unionists to “come together” saying: “It is good tonight to see unionists from all unionist parties participating in this event as brethren in their common home of Orangeism.”
Mr Elliott subsequently supported Mr Kennedy in these views, although he appears to have rowed back somewhat from that position by saying that he doesn’t expect to see unionist unity in his lifetime. Members of the UUP therefore have to choose between candidates from the extreme wings of their party.
Mr Elliott would cement the party’s core vote, especially in the west of the province. His strong Orange credentials could rebuild the organisation’s flagging relationship with the loyal orders. However some doubt whether he could engage with unionists in the east. Mr McCrea would seek to radically change the party’s message and communication, tailoring it for the consumption of disaffected unionists east of the Bann. Coming from the unionist heartland of Lagan Valley, Mr McCrea is ideally placed to reach out to these voters who elect 75% of unionist seats. The choice facing the UUP, therefore, seems to be between continuing its reliance on traditional unionist groups and taking a risk in order to expand its vote into new and potentially huge areas. If the UUP want to consolidate its position within the traditional, and shrinking, unionist community Mr Elliott is your man.
Mr McCrea represents a risk but he’s the choice if the UUP want to continue its progressive trend. As apathy amongst traditional groups continues, the UUP must find ways to reach beyond its traditional boundaries. The question the UUP has to answer on September 22 is: “Is now the right time?”
UUP member Alexander Redpath is on the committee of Platform for Change and a student union activist